A cycle of stress

Dec 062005
Authors: Amanda Schank

During a test, Kelly Koclanes sometimes finds herself at a stopping point.

"While I'm taking the test I get really nervous to the point where I have to sit back and calm myself down to continue," said Koclanes, freshman open-option major seeking technical journalism and business.

Koclanes is only one of the multitudes of students who experience a degree of test anxiety. Unlike others, Koclanes overcame her test-induced nervousness through self-taught relaxation and breathing techniques.

"If I feel like I'm getting nervous, I take a couple of seconds," she said. "I think about breathing and just focusing on what I need to do."

Many students suffer from test anxiety, a combination of apprehension and uneasiness around testing or the anticipation of testing. The anxiety can have a tendency to increase at the end of the semester, but can be helped through studying tips and relaxation techniques taught at CSU's Stress Management Program (SMP) and Learning Assistance Center (LAC).

"Sometimes when we can be open and vulnerable to another person…then that can begin a process of understanding and awareness, and sharing at that level can start a process of relaxing," said Karen Baumann , a study skills counselor at the LAC. "If you can be that open and honest and realize that someone is there to help you, it can be very powerful."

Test anxiety is a result of the combination of two separate elements that work together in a circular motion. As a type of performance anxiety, the body allows and needs a certain amount of nerves to perform well. The anxiety piece happens when someone has too much nervousness during an actual test, causing a bad performance despite preparation.

In turn, some people need more help with studying and preparing for tests – the failure accounting for poor test performances. The past failures cause anxiety about future testing situations, causing the person to continue doing poorly not necessarily because of the actual test, but because of the general anxiety felt before the test.

"Just studying and studying isn't going to help, or just learning to relax and calm yourself might not do it – you may have to do both," said Jenifer Thomas , a graduate student assistant in the SMP. "There is anxiety about the performance, but then there is also poor performance because of the anxiety.

"You can't quite separate them out and say you only need to do this, or you only need to do that – it's circular, they feed off each other."

Thomas noted the amount of hype placed on exams at the college-level is a primary cause of test anxiety. Other possible reasons include pressure and expectations set on students not only by parents and possibly professors, but also by students themselves.

Whatever the cause, test anxiety can surface at any time and with anyone.

"We'll see individuals who are on academic probation because a lot is riding on how they do, but then we'll also see straight-A students who experience test anxiety," Thomas said. "It's hard to say who's at risk."

Identifying behaviors for test anxiety include continual poor testing performances, an increased sense of bodily actions during a test, especially with the heart and breathing, and a general awareness of an overwhelming fear or apprehension.

Thomas said test anxiety could remain unnoticed in a person, a stigma with possible academic repercussions.

"The idea is that you're supposed to be stressed and nervous during a test," Thomas said. "It's just a part of college, and you just have to deal with it – that's hard to reach if you feel that."

CSU has a number of options and resources available for students struggling with test anxiety. The SMP in the University Counseling Center is the primary place for students to deal with their anxiety.

The SMP offers a set of tapes specific to test anxiety, intended to teach students relaxation techniques and other ways to deal with their apprehensions and fears. It also has a biofeedback machine that allows users to experience a relaxed state so they can learn to build and perfect that state before a test.

The LAC also offers help focused on preparing for a test. Studying and note-taking skills, as well as reviewing previous exams, are all options offered to help with a person's performance. Both centers have Web sites offering tips as well.

In addition, this week is "Stress-Busters Week" at the Wellness Zone, providing a variety of workshops intended to help people relax and unwind before finals.

Whatever option students choose, as a general rule to test anxiety: the earlier it is recognized and dealt with, the better.

"It's important to know about, because just knowing that they can do something about it – that it's not something they have to suffer through and is something they can change – they may be happier and feel like they are more successful because they can deal with it better," Thomas said. "There is something they can do about it."

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